Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
photo credit: Katherine Lambert
(Please note that this page was compiled by IPL staff who corresponded with this author in 1996. It has not been updated since. Those wishing to write to this author should not write to the IPL. They should write her through the e-mail listed on her publisher’s web site at: http://www.simonsays.com/content/destination.cfm?tab=4&pid=368174&wsref=3&num=165 )
When I was growing up, I hadn’t the slightest curiosity about the authors of books I read; it was the story that was important. My mother, and sometimes my father, read aloud to us every night. They sang to us too, and many of their songs were really stories.
I could hardly wait until I could read and write my own books. But in first grade, for some reason, I couln’t make sense of reading for a while. I would sit with a group of children while the teacher turned over large sheets of paper on an easel. Sentences had been written in crayon and seemed to have something to do with pictures in one corner–a cat or dog or a tree in autumn. One by one the other children read aloud those black marks on white paper while I sat mute and unhappy. How did they know? I always wondered, and one day I decided that perhaps reading was just making stories up. So the next time that teacher pointed to the words, I eagerly launched into a story about a dog attacking a cat beneath a tree in autumn. The teacher looked sad and shook her head, and I knew that I still had not discovered the magic secret.
By the time I reached fifth grade, however, "writing books" was my favorite hobby. I rushed home from school each day to write down whatever plot had been forming in my head, and at sixteen my first story was published in a church magazine. In college, where I was studying to be a clinical psychologist, I was able to pay my tuition by writing stories. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I decided I wanted to write more than anything else, so I gave up plans to to to graduate school and began writing full-time. I have since published, for both children and adults.
I’m not happy unless I spend some time every day writing. It’s as though pressure builds up inside me, and writing even a little helps to release it. Usually I write about six hours each day. Tending to other writing business, answering mail, and just thinking about a book takes another four hours. I spend three months to a year on a children’s book, depending on how well I know the characters before I begin and how much research I need to do. A novel for adults, because it is longer, takes a year or two. When my work is going well, I wake early in the mornings, hoping it is time to get up. When the writing is difficult and the words are flat, I am a grouch and not very pleasant to be around.
Getting an idea for a book is not hard for me keeping other ideas away while I am working on one story is what is difficult. My books are based on things that have happened to me, things I have heard or read about, all mixed up with my imaginings. The best part about writing is the moment a character comes alive on paper, or when a place that existed only in my head becomes real. There are no bands playing at this moment, no audience applauding–a very solitary time, actually–but it’s what I like most.
I live in Bethesda, Maryland, with my husband, Rex, a speech pathologist, who is the first person to read my manuscripts when they are finished. Our sons, Jeff and Michael, are grown now, but we often enjoy vacations together, in the mountains or at the ocean. When I’m not writing, I like to hike, swim, play the piano, and attend the theater.
I’m lucky to have my family, because they have contributed a great deal to my books. But I’m also lucky to have the troop of noisy, chattering characters who travel with me inside my head. As long as they are poking, prodding, demanding a place in a book, I have things to do and stories to tell.
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor FAQ’S
- Do you like to play music? If so, what instrument do you play?
Yes, I love music. My whole family was musical. I sing and play the piano and fool around now and then on a dulcimer.
- How do you come up with your ideas?
Ideas come to me from things that have happened to me or that I have heard about, all mixed up imaginings.
- Are you planning to write any new "Alice" books?
I write a new Alice book every year, and plan to take her up to her 18th birthday.
- How old were you when you began writing?
I made up my first story when I was in kindergarten, wrote little "books" in grade school, and had my first short story published when I was 16. I wrote short stories and articles for 15 years before I ever attempted a book, but once my first book was published, I gradually gave up short stories and now write novels full time.
- Have you ever noticed the similarity between Alice and Anastasia Krupnik and have you and Lois Lowry ever considered writing a novel with both characters?
I have seen reviewer’s comments that Alice and Anastasia Krupnik are alike in some ways, and for this reason I have never read any of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books, because I don’t want to start sounding like her. Lois is a good friend of mine, but I doubt either of us would want to do a book together since we’re naturally in love with our own characters.
- Of the books you have written, what is your favorite?
Probably my most favorite book–of my own books–is a novel for adults called UNEXPECTED PLEASURES, about a man building the second Chesapeake Bay bridge, who takes a 16 year-old girl under his wing to save her from going to the juvenile home. My second favorite is SHILOH. But then, of course, I also love SEND NO BLESSINGS and THE KEEPER and ONE OF THE THIRD GRADE THONKERS and ALICE IN BETWEEN and …. Asking an author to name her favorite book is like asking a mother which of her children she likes best.
- Where did you get your idea for SHILOH?
I actually found such a dog in West Virginia, in the little community of Shiloh. That dog so haunted me that long after we came home, I knew I had to write about her (She was actually a female).
- What do you do in your spare time?
What spare time? If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. If you followed me around for a week, you would see me go on a three-mile walk every morning, and swim every afternoon and sometimes play the piano, but all the while, I’m working out a plot in my head. I love doing things with our two grown sons, however, and my most favorite treats are (1)dinner and the theatre; (2)snorkeling; (3)riding a wave-runner.
- How long does it take for you to write a book?
It takes me anywhere from two months to years and years to write a book depending on how well I know the characters and plot before I begin, how long the book will be, and how much research is necessary. I’m currently working on a novel for adults that I began around 1980, and have been working on, on and off, ever since.
- Can you describe your writing process?
When I get an idea for a book, I put the name on it on masking tape and place it on the spine of a large 3-ring notebook. On a shelf beside my writing chair are about 10 of these notebooks, each with the name of a book-to-be on it. Every time I get an idea about one of these books, I jot it down in the notebook. There are pockets in each notebook which I fill with photographs, maps, pages from telephone books, newspaper clippings–anything at all that will help me in the writing of the book. When I feel ready–when I start waking early in the mornings and can’t wait to get writing–then I know that a particular book is ready. I write on a clipboard on my lap, writing out the first scene or chapter, then immediatley rewriting it to make it better. I do the same with the next chapter and the next, till the entire book has been written twice in longhand. Sometimes I do a third draft in longhand. After that I put it on my word processor, changing as I go. Then I print it out and my husband reads it and makes suggestions. I rewrite it, print it out, and read it aloud a chapter at a time to a small group of authors I meet with once a week. They critique it, and I revise it still again. Then I send it to the publisher who makes even more suggestions, and revise it a final time.
- What started your career as a writer?
I loved stories as far back as I can remember because my parents read aloud to us every night. I always loved stories and plots, and just naturally loved to make up stories myself. When I was 16, a former Sunday school teacher wrote to me that she was editing a church magazine for children. Would I write a story for it? I wrote my first and only baseball story, and she bought it for $4.67. From then on very slowly and painfully, with probably a thousand rejection slips along the way, I began branching out to other magazines, and eventually began writing books.
- Do you ever write under a pseudonym?
When I wrote magazine stories, I often had more than one story in a same issue, and editors preferred I use pseudonyms so it wouldn’t look as though one writer was doing the whole issue. I have written under P.R. Tedesco, Dean Reynolds, Deanne Reynolds, and Phyllis Naylor.
- Where did you get the idea for RELUCTANLY ALICE?
My sons went to a high school where a rather sadistic "Sophomore Sing Day" was practiced, though technically banned by the principal. Upper classmen could, on that day, surround a sophomore and make him or her sing the school song, and I adapted that idea in RELUCTANTLY ALICE.
- Can you recommend one of your books as more appropriate for readers with reading difficulties?
It depends on the age of the students, but teachers have reported that pupils with reading difficulties often enjoy EDDIE, INCORPORATED; the ALICE books; KING OF THE PLAYGROUND; ONE OF THE THIRD GRADE THONKERS and my witch series, among others.
- Are you working on a new book? If so, can you tell us something about it?
I am working on a novel for adults called CARRYING ON, but I never talk about a book until it’s finished. It "bursts the bubble," so to speak.
- Who was your favorite author when you were young?
My favorite author when I was young was Mark Twain, probably because my father read all of his books aloud to us.
- Is the dog in your book, SHILOH, based on a real dog?
Yes, SHILOH is a real dog. In real life, it’s a female, a mixed breed, her name is Clover, and was adopted by friends of ours in Shiloh, West Virginia.
- Does "Shiloh" still go on school visitations?
The last I heard, Shiloh still goes on school visits if the schools are not too far away. She has put on an enormous amount of weight, however, and does not look much at all like the skinny, abused little dog she was when I first found her. (I often wonder if children in the community aren’t feeding her on the sly.)
- How important is it/or is it important for writers to raise social, racial, and political issues in children’s literature?
I think the most important thing for writers is to write what really moves them emotionally, what they enjoy writing most, and what they feel most strongly about. Yes, it is important to raise social, racial and political issues, but only by writers who feel intensely about such things. Most of us do feel intensely about something, but not necessarily the same things and certainly not everything. There will always be writers who are emotionally involved in almost any cause just because it seems to be in the news at the moment or seems to be a popular subject. It is also important to remember that the story is everything. If it is well done, the message will be so much a part of it that the author doesn’t even have to think about it. Writers should not write a book to preach a sermon.